Archive for the 4:Stellar! Category

Review: The Shrouded Planet & The Dawning Light

Posted in 1957, 1959, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , , , , on June 6, 2009 by Aaron

Robert Randall (Robert Silverberg & Randall Garrett)
1957 & 1959

I’ve been looking forward to reading these two books ever since I picked up The Dawning Light from Joe back in November (December?) last year.  Just like the Close Up for these two books, this will be a double-header review.  Both these books by Robert Randall are the joint work of two authors – Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett.  Garrett was an experienced contributor to pulp magazines and several years older than Silverberg, and acted as a kind of mentor to the younger writer.

These two books together represent one almost seamless and continuous story despite their origins as pulp fare.   ‘Planet’ was originally published in three separate parts in Astounding Science Fiction during 1956.  For the Gnome Press hardback release in ’57, linking chapters were added to aid the flow in novel form.  Something, incidentally, that was desperately needed for The Philosophical Corps, so desperately in fact that their absence effectively destroyed what could have been a much better book… but I digress.  ‘Light’ was likewise release over three consecutive months in 1957 in the same magazine. The linking chapters work very well in these books, so well that you wouldn’t know unless you… knew.

Wikipedia goes into quite a bit of detail regarding the plots of these two books (‘Planet’ here, ‘Light’ here) and has a substantial reference regarding the planet Nidor where the books are set.  However, if you want to really enjoy these books, I recommend not reading them (the wikipedia entries, I mean) if you can at all help it.  I somehow managed to studiously avoid all this information until after I completed the tales, and my reading experience was, I think, all the better for it.

So, what was the reading experience??  I’m not going to go into detail, I’m just going to gloss over the basic structure so you can enjoy it the way I did.  The biggest strength of the story is that we never find out what the real motivations of the Earthmen are until the very end.  I found myself swinging one way or the other with regards to whether they were benign or not.  But let’s back up a bit.  The planet Nidor orbits a very bright star and is perpetually covered in cloud.  Indeed, the Nidorians have never actually seen their sun, or even the sky for that matter.  This brings to mind the Murray Leinster’s The Forgotten Planet which I read recently.  In another parallel with that book, nightly rains are a by-product of all that cloud.  Since a great cataclysm some four thousand years ago, the Nidorians have lived in a static society structured around the worship of ‘The Great Light’, their sun.  Everything is in balance from the planet’s ecology, to the economy, to leadership by the oldest members sixteen tribes.  This living, yet petrified civilization is what’s alluded to by the title of the first book.  It certainly is a ‘shrouded’ or ‘mummified’ planet.  Well, it is until the Earthmen arrive and playing on being emissaries of The Great Light, shake things up a bit.

If the title of the first book gives you an indication of what the planet is like, the second title does too.

I’ve decided that I can’t comment how I want here without giving too much away, and if you haven’t read these books then I don’t want to spoil it.  The exact motivations of our brethren in the future really are skillfully witheld until the end, and in such a way that I couldn’t make a confident guess as to what they might be.  Suffice to say that there is a lot of scope for different interpretations and comment on the motivations for intervention/nonintervention in foreign (and not necessarily off-world) cultures.

The authors have created a very believable world here populated by interesting characters.  The writing is excellent and the story well paced and engaging.  I thoroughly recommend it.  The only negative aspect that is worth comment is that the revelations at the end are too hastily resolved.  Upon reflection, I think this may be a by-product of the pulp origins of the story.  Each book was published in three parts so the sixth and final installment had to provide a satisfactory conclusion as well as being reasonably self-contained in the confines of a short story.  If they went to the trouble of penning linking chapters, also fleshing out the ending to be more suitable for one long novel (which these two books essentially are) would have been a good idea.

One thing that many stories of this vintage suffer from is the curse of the outdated technology.  Not so here.  Because all of the action takes place on Nidor where the technology is relatively primitive to that contemporary to the time of writing, there isn’t much danger of attempting to describe stuff that seems odd or flat out nonsense to the modern reader.  One of the reasons why the tale holds it’s own very well today.

This is a very entertaining and satisfying read that despite being a little too quickly wrapped up at the end, I think any SF fan will enjoy.

Review: The Forgotten Planet

Posted in 1954, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on May 8, 2009 by Aaron

Murray Leinster
1954

Murray Leinster was a pseudonym for William Fitzgerald Jenkins, a very prolific writer from Virginia in the US.  Get ready to celebrate as the State of Virginia has declared June 27th, 2009 as ‘Will F. Jenkins Day’ in honor of his achievements as a Virginian.  You can view the resolution here on the Virginian Government’s website.  I recommend you check it out as the resolution nicely itemizes his significant achievements as a writer and an all-round Virginian.

I enjoyed this book very much, and one of the reasons for this is that the pace is rapid right from the get go.  Well, not really right from the start; there is a more mundane prologue chapter that sets up the situation.  A sterile planet is terraformed over hundreds of years until it is inadvertently forgotten and lost from the records.  Lost that is, until the crew and passengers of an interstellar ship find it, only to be marooned on this world that never actually received the final stage of the terraforming process.  That is, never received higher animal life and the final push towards it becoming a world truly becoming of man.  Once this stage is set, the story begins.

But, a little more trivia before we get into the story.  Back in the ’70s, I remember enjoying a TV show called ‘Land of the Giants‘.  It was aired in the ‘States from 1968 to ’70 I think, but of course in New Zealand it didn’t get to air until several years later – early to mid ’70s if I remember correctly.  It was really cool.  Men (and women) against giant cats, lizards and people, negotiating giant foliage and utilizing giant everyday items such as needles and thimbles and things.  This book is in a similar vein.  Indeed, Murray Leinster wrote three novels in the late ’60s supporting the show.  This book is kind of like that – humans crash-land on a planet where everything is much larger that what we are used to.  In the case of The Forgotten Planet, the lack of the higher animals (mammals specifically) meant that insects and fungal life-forms – like mushrooms and things – are able to grow to giant proportions.

We pick up the story with our protagonist, Burl.  A member of a very small tribe of humans separated by about forty generations from the original castaways.  I got the impression that there are other tribes around, but it’s never explicitly mentioned. Humans have regressed.  They exist in the lowlands, permanent cloud cover overhead, rain every night, they have never seen the sky and the sun is but a slightly brighter fuzzy patch that traverses the clouds.  They eke out a kind of hunter gatherer existence, nibbling on the giant mushrooms and scavenging giant beetle meat when they can find it.  They lead a furtive life, always ready to bolt for cover whenever a giant spider or giant wasp is around.  Burl and his chums have dispositions not too dissimilar to that of a bunch of field mice.  Language appears to be rudimentary at best.  Indeed, there is no dialogue at all until page 132, and the dialogue from the entire book would only fill about one page, if that!!

Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, events and revelations, Burl starts to become more proactive and aware of their plight, and takes a leadership role within the traditionally leaderless group.  Guiding them eventually from their poor lot to a place where they find some companionship and is more secure from the highly hazardous wildlife they once shared their existence with.

Once the main story is underway, it cracks along well.  There is no let up, no down-time in the tale.  It’s a real-time non-stop adventure from beginning to just about the end.  Towards the end, we leave the immediate lives of Burl and the tribe and take a more detached viewpoint.  It’s a little disappointing as it would be nice to know Burl’s thoughts and feelings given the enormity of the events at the close of the story.

This again from Gnome Press, is three short stories cobbled together in novel form – a fix-up.  But unlike ‘The Philosophical Corps‘, it’s put together seamlessly.  Interestingly, the first two stories are from 1920 and ’21, and the third from 1953.  A long time between drinks.

There is plenty of scope in this for criticism of the outdated technology (the planet was forgotten because a punch-card fell off the stack and got lost…  was a solitary punch-card really the only record of this planet??), and some things about man’s regression on the planet that just don’t seem right (in Tom Godwin’s ‘The Survivors‘, the marooned population did more with less on a planet at least as hostile… admittedly they weren’t there for forty generations, but still…).

I’m not going to get into those questions, I raised them and we’ll leave it at that.  This is a very entertaining book.  Fast paced, well researched (in terms of the flora and fauna) and an interesting scenario.  I found it a real page-turner.

Review: All About the Future

Posted in 1955, 4:Stellar!, Adventures in Science Fiction Series, Review with tags , , on April 24, 2009 by Aaron

Martin Greenberg, editor
1955

This is the third book of the ‘Adventures in Science Fiction Series’ that I’ve read.  I haven’t gotten around to reviewing The Robot and the Man yet, but Journey to Infinity I have.  I have to say I am really enjoying the books in this series and I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the others.  I’ll probably repeat this in all the reviews for these books, but Greenberg’s theme idea is a winner.  Slightly different from the other two I have read – collections tracing the history of mankind and the history of the development of the robot – these stories are each a different take on the kinds of cultures we might see in the future.

I’ll touch on the stories in a moment, but first I just want to mention the Foreword and the Introduction.  The foreword is written by editor Martin Greenberg in which he outlines the purpose of the collection and gives a brief intro to each story.  This is a very important part of the book because it really focuses your mind on the themes and issues to take note of.  It sets the book up nicely because without it, this would be too easy to read as just a collection of pretty good science fiction short stories.  The introduction written by Robert Heinlein is special.  Actually there are two intros, the other by Isaac Asimov.  What I’m going to do here is reproduce the intro by Mr Heinlein for you to enjoy.  It’s a fascinating glimpse into how the Great Man’s mind was working back then, how he used the present to think about a science fiction future, and how he saw the ‘real’ future from the perspective of 1955.  He has a stab at predicting some things that will come to pass  (prediction #4; The United States will never engage in a preventative war), and lists a few he thinks will probably never happen.  It’s 11 pages, but this is a must-read for Heinlein fans, science fiction fans (particularly classic sf) and fans of ’50s nostalgia in general. So here it is, ‘Where To?’ by Robert Heinlein.  Enjoy.

View this document on Scribd

If you are a bit concerned about me breaking the back of this book over a scanner, don’t be.  I held the book open carefully and photographed it.  I have also made the assumption that reproducing this here isn’t a big problem.  If I’m incorrect in that, someone advise me please.

Well, on to the stories.  As I said, I’m not going to spend a lot of space analyzing every one, but I’ll let you know a little about each.

‘The Midas Plague’ by Frederick Pohl tells us about a society, that because of the excess of production, assigns ‘consumption quotas’ to citizens.  One newly married individual hits on a brilliant but illegal and subversive idea to meet and exceed his consumption needs, reduce his quotas and move up the social scale.

The operations of an ultra-secret governmental security force is the subject of ‘Un-Man’ by Poul Anderson.  Working to secure the position of a world government in the face of shadowy interests actively working against them, this organisation of clones is hard pressed to maintain stability.

Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘Granny Won’t Knit’ is an unusual tale of blossoming psi-powers in an very conservative and conformist society.  Exposed skin is considered offensive in this male-dominance and rigidly structured civilisation.

‘Natural State’ describes the transformation of a city-dwelling media star into a ‘mudfoot’ – the technology-independent people living in the wasteland outside the walled cities.  Written by Damon Knight, the story culminates in the eventual collapse of the city-states at the hands of their more naturalistic neighbors.

In ‘Hobo God’, Malcolm Jameson tells the tale of how an unwitting and unwilling astronaut becomes an unwitting and unwilling god to the native population after his mission fails on Mars.

Walter M. Miller Jr’s ‘Blood Bank’ is set it a far, far future where the current civilisation on Earth is a dark enigma to the rest of the galaxy.  Disgraced because of a tragic encounter with a mercy ship of Terran origin, a former interstellar patrol commander is determined to unravel the mystery whatever the cost.

As I mentioned earlier, some ideas regarding society and civilisation permeates the book.  Themes such as consumerism, world government and ultra-conservatism are commented on in the various stories, perhaps not directly but Martin Greenberg has constructed the book and chosen the tales well.

I enjoyed ‘Un-Man’ the most.  It’s the longest in the collection and feels surprisingly contemporary, as if it was written recently and not 50-odd years ago.  The others by comparison feel a little dated.  This isn’t neccessarily a negative on their part, but rather testimony to the strength and style in Poul Anderson’s writing in this case.  The others vary in quality for me, but in general a very enjoyable collection, especially in the light that Greenberg’s introduction throws upon it.  I have to recommend this book if only for the introduction by Heinlein.  Perhaps the editor and authors didn’t know all about the future back then, but when considered from our point of view today, I think they indeed knew more about the future than they were given credit for.

Review: The Survivors

Posted in 1958, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on March 24, 2009 by Aaron

Tom Godwin
1958

I like his style. Tom Godwin writes from a very dark perspective. I mentioned in the Close Up that the cover looked dramatic and impressive, and that it gave me a good feeling for the content. My feeling was correct. This book is dramatic. It’s dark. It’s filled with that kind of obsessive resentment that you harbor over a lifetime, single-mindedly planning, watching and waiting for the opportunity to unleash against the unfortunate but deserving object of your vengeance.

I get the impression that Tom Godwin wrote this story while dressed in moldy rags, hunched over a dirty scrap of paper with a rat-gnawed stub of a pencil that he had to keep sharpening with his teeth, while starving in the clammy corner of a dank, dark, locked room.

The story starts under a cloud of fear, fugitives broken through the blockade around Earth, running silent at at the limit of their ships capacity, hellbent for safety and refuge on a distant planet.

But it all turns to custard.

The alien antagonists find and cripple the ship, take the fit for slave labor and dump four thousand Rejects (as they call themselves), apparently doomed to a very short and brutal life on the hell planet of Ragnarok.  But, as you know, the name of the book is The Survivors, and survive they do.

The scope of this book is big,  too big for it’s 190 pages.  If this was written today it would be of Helliconian dimensions.  Alas, in the 1950s, people weren’t really envisaging multi-volume science fiction epics.  Actually, the backdrop of the Helliconia Trilogy is very similar, so similar in fact that I could be tempted to say that Mr Aldiss drew some inspiration from this novel.  Ragnarok – like Helliconia – orbits a star.  That star in turn orbits another in a binary system.  This leads to an unusual seasonal rotation.  The planet’s primary orbit around it’s star maintains an Earth-like minor seasonal cycle, and the secondary orbit around the other star induces major (longer and deeper) seasons.  This of course means that the major winter and summer are killers.  Fortunately, the major seasonal cycle on Ragnarok is much shorter that the two and a half thousand years that Helliconia is immersed in it’s major seasonal cycle.

If the climate of Ragnarok is brutal then the fauna is equally so.  Between the wildlife, the climate and the ‘Hell Disease’, our few thousand castaways are whittled down to less than a hundred in short order.  There is no romanticism here.  As the tale progresses through the generations of those that eke out an existence on Ragnarok, characters who are shaping up to play major roles are killed quickly throughout the book.  A little disconcerting from the point of flow perhaps, but it lends a certain amount of realism, especially in this environment.  I like it.

I only have two major issues with this book, one is that the brevity doesn’t do the story justice as I mentioned, the other is the seeming ability to conjure something out of nothing in the way of manufacturing processes and technology.

Example:  Becoming fed-up that their traditional-style bows and arrows are too slow and unwieldy to effectively combat the aggressive wildlife, they somehow manage to put together a magazine fed bow and arrow system that is cocked in the style of a semi-automatic shotgun that can release 10 arrows in less than 10 seconds.  A generation after that, they are smelting aluminum and have built a powerful generator to power a hyperwave transmitter.  Uhhh… ok.

I have to nit-pick about the ending a little too, a ‘sail off into the wild blue (black) yonder’ closure didn’t really sit well given the grim nature of the bulk of the story.

All that aside, this is a very enjoyable book – if you appreciate gritty realism in terms of suffering and consequences and don’t mind that no one is considered too essential to the story.  I don’t, and I find it very refreshing given the space opera fare that was popular back then.

If Tom Godwin sounds appealing to you, and you can’t get hold of this book, I recommend you visit Rusty over at Best Science Fiction Stories and take in Godwin’s very highly regarded short story The Cold Equations online.

Review: Journey to Infinity

Posted in 1951, 4:Stellar!, Adventures in Science Fiction Series, Review with tags , on February 13, 2009 by Aaron

Martin Greenberg, editor
1951

The tag-line on the cover reads “Arranged as a Story of the Imaginative History of Mankind”  I like the concept.  The editor, Martin Greenberg came up with a great idea.  I don’t know if this had been done in literature before (probably), but certainly I hadn’t encountered it prior to my Gnome Press experience.  What he has done in this anthology is collect disparate stories from different authors and arranged them in a kind of timeline to illustrate that ‘imaginative history of mankind’ that is mentioned on the cover.  Brilliant.  He had done this previously apparently with the collections Men Against the Stars and Travellers of Space and also subsequently in The Robot and the Man, which collectively are known as the ‘Adventures in Science Fiction Series’.  To highlight this, in the foreword Greenberg makes a point of repeating the opening paragraph of the foreword in the first book of the series.

“This book was planned from the very beginning to be more than just a collection of interesting adventure stories.  It was organized around a central idea, one theme which moves logically from story to story.  By building upon this unifying theme, we who prepared this book sincerely believe, a new idea in science fiction anthologies has been developed – a science fiction anthology which, taken in its entirety, tells a complete story.”

As I mentioned, I like this idea a lot.  If you have been reading this blog, you know I have read Robot & Man.  The arrangement worked well in that book – tracing the development of robots from their conception to their ultimate destiny.

This collection boasts an impressive array of well known and quality authors, but I’m not going to dwell upon them or the stories too much.

The first story by A. Bertram Chandler is called “False Dawn” and is set in a pre-modern ‘human’ society that is technologically advance though in a slightly eccentric fashion – dirigibles and balloons are popular for air transport for example.  It somewhat brings to mind Fritz Lang’s vision for Metropolis, but without the tall buildings.  Also there is an accepted but mysterious civilization on the moon which is where the problems begin.  The earth-dwellers notice the city lights gradually disappearing from the moon.  A refugee rocket from the moon attempts to land in an area containing many natural volatiles and sets off a apparently world-wide conflagration culminating in a global flood.  You can see where this is going.  After rescuing what they could, the survivors eventually ground on land they call ‘Mount Arrak’.  That’s not the only near-homophone in the story.  The names of the characters are eerily familiar too.

This story set the book up nicely.  We then have the predictable Atlantis story, an all-too-brief retrospective interlude with a near-immortal character in the 1950s who has seen the rise and fall of humanity over thousands of years, and a 20th-century-man-battles-his-warlike-nature story before heading into more traditional SF fare.

In the final story, “Metamorphosite” by Eric Frank Russell, man has come full circle.  We’ve colonized the galaxy, incorporated other species into our galactic civilization and forgotten about our homeworld.  Meanwhile, the original Terrans back on Earth have evolved powers of telepathy and mind control and moved on from the war-like, militaristic and paranoid state of mind we know so well.  Mankind unknowingly discovers his ancestors and after a brief pursuit on man’s capital world, the Terran representative convinces the powers-that-be that they would be outmatched by the Terrans in any conflict by a demonstration of how different the by now two species are.

The common theme throughout the book is disaster and rebirth.  For mankind to avoid stagnation and decay, and to keep progressing, some kind of crisis needs to occur.  In story after story this is the case.  From the intercontinental war that destroys “Atlantis”, to the workers uprising that results in ill-prepared refugees blasting off for the stars in Jack Williamson’s “Breakdown”, to man rediscovering fear itself after generations of total domination during galactic conquest in “Barrier of Dread” by Judith Merril, mankind faces, overcomes and moves on from these setbacks.

These stories were all written in the ’40s and ’50s.  Once again the bugbear of now-outdated technological thinking raises it’s head.  Why an entrance would be described as “…heavy enough to withstand a howitzer…” at a time 1.5 million years in the future is a little hard to fathom these days.  However, this brings me back to the introduction.

Written by Fletcher Pratt, he raises a couple of good points before the stories get underway.  Regarding technology, he reminds us that H.G. Wells had air war being fought in hydrogen-filled balloons and points out that the precise details aren’t really important (the general idea and effects described by Mr Wells were apparently very accurate).  The awry extrapolation of the future existence or use of a certain technology shouldn’t be the focus, but instead the idea or concept behind it.  After all, the stories in the book are extrapolations of what might exist or what might come to pass, and are not meant to be accurate predictions.  For me, that’s where the fun and adventure are – in those ideas – not in the technical details that are so often derided by the critical modern reader.

In summary, the stories are good.  An enjoyable read that kept me wanting to move on to the next tale wondering to where mankind had progressed next.  I’m certainly looking forward to obtaining and reading the remaining books in this series.

Review: Iceworld

Posted in 1953, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on December 28, 2008 by Aaron

I first read Hal Clement maybe eight or nine years ago. I was doing my IT degree at the time and was reading a lot. I was a member at the Lower Hutt Public Library and got most of my reading material from there. Actually, I have many good reading memories from that period. I read Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast trilogy for the first time, Gene Wolfe‘s Book of the Long Sun, an unusual book called All of an Instant by a Richard Garfinkle, a couple of books by Greg Egan (if you think Clement is hard SF, you should try that guy) and one of the books I read during this period was Clement’s Half Life.  I enjoyed the book immensely but unfortunately it was the only book of his in the library.  He kind of went on the back-burner for a while, but when I came to Korea, I picked up Heavy Planet and Noise.  Incidentally, I have a 1st BCE edition of Mission of Gravity.

Iceworld was a book of his that I’d been looking forward to reading for a while.  I discovered an excellent synopsis/review of the book in another blog, so I’ll link to that in a second.  I just want to give my two cents worth first.  Iceworld is noticibly more ‘immature’ compared to ‘Gravity’.  Almost like a contemporary Heinlein juvenile with the main human protaganists being a family and often told from the children’s perspective.  Wait, ‘immature’ might be a poor choice of word, I mean it feels like it is written with the younger reader in mind notwithstanding the hard science. Heinlein’s juveniles contain their fair share of hard science of course, but if I was reading this when I was 10 or 12 years old (as I was Heinlein) it would often be tough going and perhaps uninteresting.  Just on the science, there are several instances of technology and science that are obviously very out of touch with reality today.  A couple of examples that spring to mind are the mention of a slide rule and the notion that Mercury was tidally locked to the sun.  These things might bother some, but they don’t bother me at all.  I might talk about outdated science in classic SF in another post sometime.  The review of Iceworld is located here over at Variety SF.  It’s quite comprehensive and well worth reading though if you haven’t read Iceworld, a word of warning – it does contain spoilers.  Enjoy.